The Insider’s Guide To Outsider Music

Singing nuns and stardust cowboys, vanity records and the Shaggs. Welcome to the curious world of outsider music. You know it when you hear it. But what is it?

Strange music. Weird music. “What IS that?”

All three have been used at one time to describe stuff that’s now called outsider music.

You know it when you hear it. But what is it?

Outsider music is notable for a degree of unawareness; a childlike innocence that enables its performers to express adult thoughts in ways an adult would never consider. Think of Jonathan Richman in There’s Something About Mary.

A certain disregard for musical convention is also required, in content, form, or execution. Outsider musicians don’t stop at thinking outside the box. For them, the box doesn’t even exist.

In its purest form, outsider music had to be recorded in a studio and pressed on records. All outsider music shares a third quality: someone, somewhere, thought it would sell, or they wouldn’t have recorded it.

Three of the more accessible outsider artists, who’ve never heard of the box, are the Shaggs, Tiny Tim, and The Legendary Stardust Cowboy.

The Shaggs

“Unaffected by outside influences.” — Shaggs’ album notes

Helen, Betty, and Dorothy “Dot” Wiggin were sisters from Fremont, New Hampshire who began playing music as a two guitars and drums trio. Their father was impressed and decided they should record an album. They hadn’t learned how to sing or play their instruments. That didn’t stop the project.

In 1969 Dad Wiggin booked studio time at Revere, Massachusetts’ Fleetwood Records, a company then known for its output of sports highlights albums. While John and Yoko were bedding down for peace, and while the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed was moving up the album charts, the Shaggs were recording Philosophy Of The World in one day.

No pop group had considered such a complex subject on its first album. Sang Dot: “The poor people want what the rich people got …” (That says it all right there.)

Rounder Records later issued tracks from the Shaggs second, in 1973, Fleetwood session as Shaggs’ Own Thing. RCA re-issued Philosophy in 1998. Critics called the songs “wonderfully, refreshingly dreadful.” Lester Bangs loved them. Frank Zappa considered the Shaggs as famous as the Beatles in the history of favorite music.

Tiny Tim

“Oh . . . hello to you nice . . . Beatles . . . ” — Tiny Tim, on the 1968 fan club Christmas message

Right. The beak-nosed, frizzy-haired guy who was on “Laugh-In” all the time, who plonked his ukelele and sang “Tiptoe Through The Tulips” — a 1929 hit for uke master Nick Lucas — in a creaky falsetto, who got married on the Tonight show in December 1969, who became a regular on the TV talk show circuit. Whom television turned into a cartoon character.

Fans, however, know that Tim — real name Herbert Khaury — spoke and sang in a rich baritone, was a gentle soul who loved old songs, and had an encyclopedic knowledge of turn-of-the-century favorite music. If anyone casually mentioned Byron G. Harlan, who in 1906 popularized “Wait ‘Till The Sun Shines, Nellie,” Tim could name a half-dozen of his other songs.

Tim had a heart attack in September 1996 but kept doing the other thing he loved: performing. During a concert in Minneapolis on November 30, he suffered a second heart attack and died that night.

The Legendary Stardust Cowboy

“I’ll have the first universal passport, that will allow me to visit Mars, the moon, and other hot spots.” — the Ledge

Norman Carl Odam attended the same Lubbock, Texas junior high –W.T. Hutchinson — as Buddy Holly. Like Buddy, he’s unassuming and a little shy off stage. There the similarity ends. Buddy sang about traditional boy-girl dilemmas, while the Ledge’s albums contain songs about the IRS, trash cans, cactus, and outer space, backed by a high-octane rockabilly beat, punctuated by rebel yells, and bugle blasts not always in the same key as the band’s.

In the United States, the Ledge is strictly underground where he’s known at all. In Europe, he’s an American original. He fills clubs in Holland and Belgium, and in Paris where he’s known as “Monsieur Stardust.” Broadcasters in over forty countries, including Australia, Israel, and Albania, pay annual royalties for using the Ledge’s 1968 signature song, “Paralyzed.”

The Ledge’s two favorite topics for songs? “The old West and space exploration,” he says in the notes of his 1981 album Rocket To Stardom. “Everything in between is all garbage, and I’m not interested.”

Check Your Thrift Store

The scope of outsider music has broadened since the Wiggin sisters plugged in their amps and cut loose. We can now apply the outsider tag to things as diverse as Fifties easy listening music, children’s records, quickie cover songs, spoken word albums, and home recordings. In thrift shops and yard sales, and in larger used record stores, outsider treasures still lurk, waiting to be found.

Long-play easy listening

In the Fifties, the 33 1/3 rpm album was still cutting-edge technology. The stereo recording was even more of a novelty. Some record companies combined the two and issued instrumental albums loaded with gimmicks. They isolated the strings on the left channel and woodwinds on the right. Drums bounced between speakers. The desired effect was one of exotic mystery. One of these curiosities, “Quiet Village” — a mix of strings and vibraphones over a cha-cha beat, with sound effects of birds and jungle critters squawking — became a hit in 1957 for its creator, arranger, and conductor Martin Denny.

Of the practitioners of this art, Martin Denny and Esquivel — born Juan Garcia Esquivel — became kings of what’s now called “space-age bachelor pad music.” Back then, no single guy’s living room was complete without a phonograph, the “Quiet Village” album, and one or two Esquivel discs for setting a romantic mood, even if it had a fireplace.

Children’s records

Any children’s album in playable condition is worth a try, with the childlike, by definition, an aspect of outsider music in mind. As the nature of children’s music evolved, from Bozo to virtual space flights, Sesame Street, the Smurfs, and the Hamster Dance, innocence and lack of concern for the adult world remain constant. And, if you haven’t heard the Smurfs sing “Twelve Days Of Christmas,” well then, for what are you are waiting?

The Knockoff Album

At a time when adults still accounted for nearly all LP sales, the Hollyridge Strings cut a series of albums covering Elvis, Beatles, Four Seasons, and Beach Boys songs that are now top 40 staples. Many imitators followed their lead. (The beautiful music version of “I Got You Babe” simply must be heard to be appreciated.) Budget label albums of covers, often from a single year, by groups with names like The Now Generation, were also quickly recorded and issued. Then there’s the HIT label.

It issued generic covers of hit (what else?) songs of the day, selling them for 39 cents in drugstores and five-and-tens to unsuspecting adults who thought they were getting the real thing at a bargain price. Its cover of “Dominique,” a 1963 French language #1 by The Singing Nun — speaking of outsider music — is lovely and refreshing, and dreadful, and everything else the Shaggs are. After hearing it, I had to play la soeur chantant’s original to wipe the HIT singer’s bad French from my short-term memory.

Low-priced imitations did bring the music to people who may not have otherwise heard it. They still weren’t as Everyman as the most populist kind of outsider music: the song-poem.

Song-poems

“Poems Wanted To Be Set To Music.” “Songs Needed.” “You Can Be A Professional Songwriter.”

So said the classified ads I found in the back pages of comic books and baseball magazines. They sounded promising. I reasoned that, if the path to stardom was that wide, there had to be a catch. There was.

Anyone could have a poem set to music and recorded, but only after paying the recording company to do it; in the same way writers pay “vanity” publishers to print their stories. Studios specializing in song-poems were factories in which they could record dozens in one day, one after the other. The band usually got its first look at the song a few minutes before cutting it in one take. Only musicians and singers with exceptional talent can sight-read music, or sight-sing lyrics, under song-poem studio conditions.

The personal nature of poetry lent itself to some evocative song titles: “Disco Dancer, You’re The Answer.” “Betsy And Her Goat.” “I Am A Ginseng Digger.” “Santa Claus Goes Modern.” (Songs that dare you to listen to them.)

For the fee, the writer got a few boxes of 45s to promote and sell themselves, or to show friends to prove that there was a record with their name on it. Suspicious-looking thrift store 45s with weird titles and little or no information on the labels, and albums of songs with funny titles might contain undiscovered song-poem gems.

It does get stranger, though.

Spoken-word treasures

“How To Plan The Perfect Dinner Party.” “Astrology For Young Lovers.” “What To Do If The Bomb Falls.” “Holiday Magic Facial Exercises.” “How To Play Winning Bridge.” All are actual album titles. (You can’t make this kind of stuff up.) They’re relics from a time when the record player also informed and educated. They may not swing with a boogie beat, but you can usually find them in very playable condition. Grownups handled them, and the need for repeated listening to an album of tips on how to make dinner a success was presumably minimal.

Every spoken-word record crate needs one or two audio system test records. These albums consisted of tones, along with wow, rumble and tracking tests, and more gimmicky stereo music for checking separation between channels. Since phonographs are no longer mass-marketed, it stands to reason that they make no test records. Those that survive are also relics, of a pre-CD era when vinyl ruled.

For further research …

Resources like The 365 Days Project, where one outsider MP3 per day gets posted in 2003, the song-poem documentary Off The Charts, writer and broadcaster Irwin Chusid’s Songs In The Key Of Zbooks and CD compilations, and the website of his radio home, WFMU in East Orange, New Jersey, will open musical windows you never knew were there.

Also never erase any cassette from a thrift shop or yard sale without spot-checking it first. You never know what instant outsider classics might be on it like there are on those old tapes of you singing along with your mom’s Abba records.

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